From the “Introduction” to Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by C. Bradley Thompson (with Yaron Brook).
Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea is unique because it is the first and only book to present neoconservatism as a comprehensive and integrated political philosophy with its own system of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. It tells the story of how and why a small group of neoconservative intellectuals and policy strategists came to define and dominate the intellectual horizon of the American political Right in the last half of the twentieth century. Specifically, Neoconservatism illuminates for the first time in print what the neocons call their “philosophy of governance” and what they mean when they advise Republicans to “think politically”; it explicates their theory of statesmanship; it examines their call for a “conservative welfare state”; it details why they only give two cheers for capitalism and not three; it traces neoconservatism’s deepest philosophic sources; it demonstrates how and why the neocons trace the origins of nihilism to Enlightenment liberalism; it unpacks the meaning of their so-called “classical-realist synthesis” of Plato and Machiavelli; it shows how the neoconservative foreign policy of “benevolent hegemony” is actually a branch of its “national greatness” domestic policy; it takes up the neocons’ claim that neoconservatism is the only brand of conservatism that is truly “in the American grain”; it contrasts neoconservatism with and against the principles and practices of the American Founders’ vision of a free society; and it reveals the ominous parallels between neoconservatism and certain authoritarian political theories that became prominent in the 1920s and 1930s.
Readers of this book should know up front that this is not a systematic A to Z study of neoconservative ideas or policies. It does not examine neoconservatism historically or sociologically; it does not explain how neoconservatism may or may not have changed over time; nor does it elucidate or dissect the various wings, factions, and personalities of neoconservatism. Others have done these things already—and sometimes done them reasonably well. This book is about the philosophic essence of neoconservatism. It is, to use Irving Kristol’s felicitous expression, about the “neoconservative persuasion.”
Ultimately, our purpose is to open up and to reveal the inner workings of the neoconservative mind and to reconstruct the broad parameters of neoconservative political philosophy. This is no easy assignment given the fact that there is no “Neoconservative Manisfesto” or party platform to which all neocons have sworn allegiance and doubly so given the fact that the neocons disagree with each other as often as the brothers Hitchens. It is precisely the syncretic nature of neoconservatism that makes it so hard to understand and to present accurately, which is why the neocons have been so successful in deflecting criticism and in mocking their critics who never quite seem to get it right. A truly serious and decisive examination of neoconservativsm must therefore begin by transcending the flawed accounts of neoconservatism, of which there have been too many in recent years.
Our method for discovering and excavating the hidden recesses and deepest philosophic principles of neoconservatism begins with the surface of neoconservative thought—i.e., with their most accessible public writings on contemporary politics and culture. We begin, in other words, with their self-presentation. In particular, we start in chapters 1 and 2 with their attempt to make over and take over the Republican Party and the conservative intellectual movement. We then drill down—layer by layer, chapter by chapter—to the hidden core of neoconservative political thought. To slightly change the metaphor, we engage in an exercise of intellectual spelunking. A primary task of this book has been to identify the neoconservatives’ method of thinking, which will in turn help us to reveal and explicate the most important philosophic principles of neoconservatism in terms of fundamentals.
We also tackle and devote several chapters to a related question that has vexed many scholars: What is the deepest philosophic source of neoconservatism? Different neoconservatives will claim philosophic allegiance to different ideas or thinkers, but at the heart of the neoconservative persuasion stands one thinker above all others: Leo Strauss. A central goal of this book is to elucidate the intellectual relationship between Strauss and neoconservatism. More to the point, we examine the ways in which prominent neoconservatives have applied Strauss’s philosophic ideas to American domestic and foreign policy.
A good deal—and certainly a good deal of nonsense—has been written on this subject in recent years, but we do not believe the relationship between Strauss and neoconservatism has been properly understood or explained. Indeed, much that has been written on Strauss by friends and foes alike has only muddied the public’s knowledge of the connection between Strauss and neoconservatism. One major problem in examining the relationship between Strauss and the neocons is that Strauss rarely spoke publicly about his political views. He left his students and readers with very little in the way of public-policy prescriptions. For instance, Strauss wrote almost nothing about economic or foreign policy. Consequently, making sense of his philosophic principles and his rare statements on contemporary political issues and their connection to neoconservative ideas and policies is no easy assignment.
What is most needed today is a reexamination of Strauss’s thought that avoids the salacious gossip, distorted caricatures, and strained rationalizations that have defined many recent works on Strauss and his students. We also need a better understanding of Strauss’s relationship to the neocons. Most importantly, Strauss cannot be either refuted or defended if he has not been understood properly. Thus we have attempted to read Strauss with the kind of care that his work deserves, and we have also labored to understand and present his perspective on its own terms (i.e., as he understood it himself), eschewing the roles of either fawning toady or foaming critic. We began our study of Strauss by neither taking him for granted, as do so many of his students, nor by rejecting his premises out of hand, as do so many of his detractors. Like the great political philosophers that he studied, Strauss deserves to be examined with seriousness and respect, and we have attempted to do just that.
After reviewing all the evidence, we have concluded that the relationship between Strauss’s thought and that of the neoconservatives is real, meaningful, and fundamental, but its deeper contours and significance are still largely unknown. We argue that Leo Strauss’s view of the world and man’s place in it has inspired and guided neoconservative thinking (via Irving Kristol) in the most essential ways. On this score, foremost among the unique and important contributions of this book to neoconservative scholarship is our discovery of a Rosetta Stone-like document that reveals not only a previously unknown philosophic connection between Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, but also the deepest recesses of neoconservative thought. If we examine the rise of neoconservatism in terms of essentials, if we look for that one decisive moment that turned and shaped the neoconservative mind, it would have to be Irving Kristol’s first intellectual encounter with Leo Strauss. That moment represents the intellectual birth of neoconservatism.
In light of our discovery, we shall explore Strauss’s influence on several key elements of neoconservative thought. In particular, we will show how Strauss’s philosophical method and ideas shaped the neocons’ diagnosis of and prognosis for Western society, their condemnation of Enlightenment liberalism, their ironic defense of America and the principles of its revolutionary founding, their call for a new form of statesmanship grounded in Machiavellian prudence, their call for a new political morality that promotes self-sacrifice and service as the highest virtues, their insistence that Americans devote themselves to religion and nationalism, their demand that government regulate both man’s material and spiritual needs, and, finally, their call for a reconsideration of, if not a return to, classic natural right and Platonic political philosophy. At the heart of our study of neoconservatism, then, is a new reading of Strauss that focuses on two principal themes in his thought: first, his critique of the classical-liberal tradition and, second, his unique and controversial interpretation of Plato—and, more particularly, his interpretation of Plato’s doctrine of Ideas.
In the end, the theme that animates this book will shock and outrage some: Neoconservatism is, we shall argue, a unique species of anti-Americanism. At the deepest philosophical level, neoconservatism stands for the repeal of 1776. For the past five decades, the neocons have devoted their considerable philosophical and polemical talents to analyzing and critiquing the ideas and policies of the liberal-Left as being anti-American. This is one of the attributes for which they are best known. Furthermore, they have also done important and sometimes path-breaking work in resuscitating the study of the American Founding. What is less well known, however, is that the neocons have also devoted considerable time and energy undermining (in very subtle ways) the principles of a free society. This will of course come as a surprise to some, as the neocons have likewise invested a great deal of time and energy mining the American past in search of usable traditions that will cast an Americanized veil over their core principles. They have worked very hard to convince the American people that there is something in the national character that is naturally inclined toward the neoconservative way of viewing the world. We think not.
Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea seeks to recover a somewhat forgotten but venerable literary genre that combines philosophical analysis with political criticism. Ultimately, we have written this book to alert Americans to the threat posed by neoconservatism to the principles and institutions of a free society. We take neoconservatism seriously as an important and influential intellectual movement, and we have judged the neocons’ political philosophy and policy prescriptions on the basis of the merits or demerits of their ideas and actions. Responsible American citizens owe it to themselves and to their posterity to become acquainted with the ideas and political ambitions of this enormously influential but dangerously misunderstood intellectual movement. In the end, not only do we reject the false promises of neoconservatism, we judge and condemn it as a political philosophy that is fundamentally at odds with the heart and soul of Americanism and the spirit of American liberty.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Published with the permission of Paradigm Publishers.